As a trainer, I believe in a client’s autonomy.
I rarely will tell them to totally avoid an exercise, nor will I emphasize that they “must” perform a certain movement. I’ll often ask them for a favorite exercise before prescribing a strength program.
However, there are some exercises that can hurt your body in a nasty way. When a client expresses a desire to perform one of these exercises, I will often give a healthier alternative. This allows them to be satisfied with the movement while also keeping their risk of injury to a minimum.
With that in mind, I’d like to share six exercise that have the ability to cause or increase shoulder pain (as well as six exercises I recommend clients to use in their place).
1. Barbell Overhead Press
Ever heard your shoulders cracking during this exercise? Even worse, have you felt a bit of pinching or pain in the front of your shoulder?
First of all, if you feel pinching or pain during this exercise, it would be a good idea to see a doctor or physical therapist. Second, the majority of my clients have desk jobs, as do roughly 80% of the U.S. population. Almost all of them slouch. Odds are that you do, too.
Besides rounded shoulders, often I see clients with their shoulders almost attached to their ears. This largely comes from spending hours each day sitting in a slumped position with our shoulders rolled forward:
When you have this type of posture, your shoulders are sort of stuck in one place instead of moving freely on your rib cage. It results in muscle imbalances and weakness around the shoulder joint. You can’t really lift your arm above your head without compensation (either through the lower back, neck or both). So the movement is already not healthy. Add weight on top of that, especially via a straight bar that doesn’t allow for much freedom of movement, and it’s a recipe for trouble.
Try This Instead: Landmine Shoulder Press
This is one of my favorite shoulder press alternatives. There are tons of variations for it. You can do them standing, in split stance, kneeling, half-kneeling, etc.
The reason I love this exercise so much is because instead of trying to press the weight all the way up, you’re pressing three-quarters of the way up, which is most people’s real range of motion through the shoulder.
Second, this exercise teaches you to move your shoulder blades on the rib cage, making sure you work the serratus muscle, which is often neglected in shoulder training, but is important for shoulder health.
Above is a great example on how to perform a Half-Kneeling Landmine Press by Tony Bonvechio.
Thrusters are an extremely popular exercise among CrossFitters. It’s essentially a Front Squat into an Overhead Press performed repeatedly. There’s nothing wrong with the exercise by itself. However, it is not ideal for people who sit with poor posture for hours each day. The reasons for that are the same reasons Overhead Barbell Presses aren’t a great idea for a large portion of the population.
Try This Instead: Landmine Thrusters
I prefer doing this exercise with a landmine and a box, as I can kill two birds with one stone: I can save my client’s shoulders and also groove the perfect squat pattern.
If you’re doing CrossFit, but your shoulders hurt and you don’t want to forgo the movement entirely, this alternative is great for you. Here’s how it looks:
3. Barbell Bench Press
As a powerlifter, the Bench Press is a must for me. As a matter of fact, I Bench Press three times a week.
But not all of my clients are powerlifters. And even when they do want to powerlift, we start off with alternative equipment before moving to the barbell.
The main reason for this decision is the same postural limitations I’ve described previously. Due to the poor range of motion in the shoulder joint, the Bench Press should be done with a ton of precaution. Similar to the Overhead Press, the position of your shoulders during this exercise can literally make or break your shoulders’ safety.
Take a look at this first picture.
If you look at the shoulder, you can see that the top of the shoulder bone (the head of the humerus) is pushing forward. Now, take a look at this second picture.
The shoulder looks different, right?
So before you load the barbell with heavy weights, it’s a good idea to learn how to move it so that your shoulder position looks more like the second picture. Wouldn’t you agree?
Try This Instead: Single-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press
Therefore, if you’re interested in learning how to Barbell Bench Press, I’d recommend starting with a Single-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press. While doing this exercise, try to focus on pulling the dumbbell toward your chest and then pushing it away from you. If you must press with a barbell, I’d suggest going with neutral-grip handles on a barbell, like this one. And if you don’t have one, you can use a trap bar for the same purpose.
Placing your hands in a neutral position helps you to activate and feel your lats more, ensuring you move the shoulder blades to keep your shoulders safe.
4. Barbell Back Squat
Squats are amazing for developing overall body strength. They work everything from the glutes, hamstrings and quads, to the abs, back and arm muscles. Barbell Back Squats are arguably the most popular variation of Squat, yet in order to successfully place a barbell on your back without compromising your shoulder’s health, you’ve got to have good shoulder range of motion and the opposite of a hunchback posture.
There are exercises you can do to improve these two areas, but you can also still get your Squat on in the meantime.
Try This Instead: Squat With a More Shoulder-Friendly Hand Position
You can go with Goblet Squats or Front Squats, or if you’re lucky enough and your gym has one, a Back Squat with a safety squat bar (also known as a SSB in the strength and conditioning world). If you can Barbell Back Squat without pain, that’s great. But for many folks, starting with more shoulder-friendly squat alternatives while working on their posture is a smart idea.
5. Barbell Bent-Over Row
If you didn’t know I was a powerlifter and a powerlifting coach, you’d think I’m hating hard on the barbell. I am not! What I’m hating on is the way exercises are performed with this piece of equipment.
Generally, exercises with a barbell are advanced. Which means that you, as a fitness enthusiast, have mastered the movement and are now ready to build the strength of the Incredible Hulk. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for 99% of people.
Similar to the Bench Press, the position of your shoulders matter here, too. During both exercises, you move the barbell toward yourself. Hence, you’ll need to use your big rowing muscles in your upper and middle back. Often, however, I see people make one huge mistake: They drive their elbows back instead of moving their shoulder blades. It looks something like this.
This action forces the head of the humerus to slide out of the socket and push on the biceps tendon (located in the front of the shoulder). While it may not hurt during the exercise, enough pushing on the tendon will lead to pain, which will prevent you from becoming seriously strong.
Try This Instead: Single-Arm Row
Before you grab the barbell and knock your shoulder out, try doing a Single-Arm Row to help you groove the pattern. Once you master this exercise, you can move to the barbell.
6. Inverted Rows
Here’s a question for you. When you do Inverted Rows, what do you feel is working? Do you mostly feel it in your arms? Maybe your shoulders? Or traps?
Or is it all in your middle back? If you do feel it’s successfully targeting your middle back, there is nothing for you to read here. You’re good! However, if you’re one of the 99% of the gym population who feels like the exercise is working everything but their lats, keep reading.
I often see people who simply aren’t advanced enough to be performing the exercise butchering Upright Rows. And even for the people who do have the requisite strength and stability, they often lessen the effectiveness of the exercise with poor form.
What I typically see is people driving their elbows back and bringing their shoulders up toward their ears to compensate for their back muscles being weak and inactive. The back muscles are what we’re looking to target with this exercise, so that’s a terrible habit.
Before you try Inverted Rows, you need to know how the exercise is done. Then you need to learn the version where you feel the right muscles, so your body knows how to perform the exercise. Then you need to practice this movement. Only then are you good to move to a more advanced version of the exercise.
Try This Instead: TRX Rows
To learn the movement, I’d suggest doing TRX Rows. Because the TRX has adjustable straps, you can slowly increase the difficult of the exercise as you master the movement.
If you don’t have a TRX but have a trap barbell, you can do a Trap Bar Inverted Row. This puts your hands in a neutral position, making it easier for you to feel your lats working.
As you can see, it’s not the exercises or the piece of equipment that truly harm your shoulders, but rather the form that certain exercises or pieces of equipment lead to for people with less-than-steallar posture and/or mobility.
Photo Credit: vitapix/iStock